By DEBRA VAUGHN
Capt. Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper is one of the few humans on Earth to know what it’s like to view our planet from space, float weightless and feel the cold, vast immensity of the universe up close.
The former astronaut and her husband, Glenn Piper, moved to North Whidbey last year. Their son, Michael, now works as an explosive ordnance technician in the Navy. In retirement they had the world to choose from and they wanted this place to call home. Yes, she’s well prepared to see the inside of probably every elementary school classroom in Oak Harbor. She said she views it as part of her duty to share what she experienced.
“That’s the price for the opportunity to fly in space,” she said. “When you come back, it’s to share with others who haven’t had that opportunity.”
She became a mission specialist in 1998. While she’s taken two trips to space in 2006 and 2008, her career is far more expansive.
Stefanyshyn-Piper, 53, was raised in Minnesota, the only daughter among five children. She loves math. She attended MIT and earned an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. Since she had many siblings and an expensive tuition bill, Naval ROTC seemed like a natural path. She ended up staying in the Navy far beyond her initial obligation.
She worked as a diving and salvage officer. Her major salvage projects include freeing a stranded tanker, the Exxon Houston, off the coast of Barbers Point, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and developing the plan for the Peruvian Navy salvage of the Peruvian submarine Pacocha.
Throughout her time at NASA, she remained on the Navy’s payroll and returned to finish out her career as a captain. After her trips to space, people under her command enjoyed toying with new sailors by suggesting their CO was an astronaut. That seemed like a nice joke until the new sailors would step into her office and see a photo of her in a spacesuit.
If there’s anything that approximates walking in space, it’s diving. Perhaps that’s what set her apart from the thousands of people applying to NASA for space travel. She didn’t make the first try. The second time she applied she got the OK in 1996. She trained to fly in a mission that was scheduled for departure not long after the ill-fated “Columbia” mission that disintegrated on re-entry in February of 2003. Her mission was postponed.
She doesn’t admit to much time spent thinking about what could go wrong. Her role in the Navy, like many, was inherently high risk. Flying into space was no different.
“It’s not the safest thing to do,” she said. “We understand there are risks associated with the job. The safest time to fly is right after an accident.”
She would wait more than three years after the “Columbia” accident to go into space. When it was finally time, the launch of the space shuttle “Atlantis” mission STS-115 was delayed for days by weather. When finally she was strapped into a seat and heading toward space, all she felt was relief.
Of six on her initial flight, she was the only woman. Her entire career was spent navigating through male-dominated fields. It didn’t faze her. She was raised with four brothers, and she learned if she were an expert at her work, she would earn the respect of her colleagues.
On her two missions, Stefanyshyn-Piper felt the enormity of space. The earth is a beautiful blue orb, she said, and she could watch the sun set and rise every 45 minutes — it took about an hour and a half for the space shuttle to circumnavigate the globe. From space, the universe is dark, the stars blotted out by the light from the sun.
“You don’t have anything as a reference when you look at space,” she said. “It’s black.”
The thing that surprised her most about space was sleep. She was, of course, weightless. At bedtime, she was strapped down but she didn’t have the weight and the direct contact gravity provides. She never fully adjusted.
Space movies may be forever ruined for her because she can see what Hollywood gets wrong. It’s usually movement in space.
In space she felt the gaze of the world on her. One unfortunate mistake led to negative press attention. It happened on her second trip, mission STS-126 aboard the shuttle “Endeavour” to the International Space Station. They were bringing up part of a space station module. She was on a spacewalk and noticed blobs of grease. She was attempting to clean it when her $100,000 tool bag drifted away. Normally, everything is tethered. For some reason the tool bag wasn’t.
During her spacewalks she was tethered by an 85-foot cable and she also sported a jet pack with just enough power to push her toward the shuttle if the cable snapped. She watched the tool bag float away and thought for a split second about diving after it —than she thought better of it.
The orbiting tool bag was a favorite for sky-watchers until it entered Earth’s atmosphere the next year and burned.
“It made me realize when bad things happen to you, most of the time it’s not one thing,” she said. “It’s a chain of events.”
During her two missions, she completed five spacewalks totaling 33 hours and 42 minutes. She is the eighth woman to perform a spacewalk.
In retirement, Stefanyshyn-Piper and her husband are enjoying the outdoor activities the Northwest has to offer, especially hikes. It’s nice, she said, to not get up at 4:30 every morning.